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Top Five Most Embarrassing Early-'80s Soul Sell-Outs

Larry Graham

Larry Graham

By Sean O'Connell

This Sunday at the Hollywood Bowl you'll be able to catch Larry Graham, wedged between performances by sand-swept Spyro Gyra and saxophone loverboy Dave Koz. But, Graham is a pioneering funk bassist, so why the heck is he a part of the Bowl's Smooth Summer Jazz concert?

Here's the story, in brief: As the original bassist for Sly & the Family Stone -- and the leader of Graham Central Station -- Graham invented an entirely new style of playing. He calls it "thumpin' and pluckin,'" everyone else calls it "slapping," but no matter: it's a percussive technique that defined funk bass for much of the '60s and '70s. Without him there would be no Bootsy Collins, no Flea, no Les Claypool and no Seinfeld theme song.

Unfortunately, during the '80s, Graham became one of many middle-aged music veterans to make some decidedly-unfunky career choices, which led him to Sunday's (now quite appropriate) appearance before the Kenny G-appreciative chardonnay crowd. And so, in remembrance of Graham's transformation from funk master to smooth crooner, we present the top five soul artists who embarrassed themselves trying to cash in.

5. Larry Graham - "One in a Million You"

From: 1980's One in a Million You

Just three years after releasing Graham Central Station's exhilirating album Now Do U Wanta Dance, Graham made his solo debut with a slow, sappy ballad that focused more on his baritone voice and synthesizer collection than on his bass skills. It was also his only #1 chart hit. He spent the rest of the decade trying to match that success, before returning to the funk with Prince's New Power Generation in the '90s.

4. Isley Brothers - "Belly Dancer, Parts I & II"

From: 1980's Go All The Way

Twenty years after "Shout," the Isley brothers seemed to be uncomfortably lusty. Forty-year-old Ronald Isley's breathy moan -- punctuated by his brothers' constant refrain of "dance for me" -- crawls for a creepy six minutes over a chunky guitar and slapped bassline. Michael Jackson's success was clearly having an effect on everyone. It should also be noted that, for some ridiculous reason, every track on the album is labeled "Parts I & II."

3. Billy Preston & Syreeta - "Love"

From: 1981's Billy and Syreeta

Less than ten years after becoming the "Fifth Beatle," keyboard prodigy Billy Preston was already making a last ditch effort on the R&B charts, with help from Stevie Wonder's ex-wife Syreeta. Together they recorded an album of treacly duets that sounded like every bad Disney ballad of the last thirty years. "Love" manages to change key every thirty seconds, taking one cheap gimmick and making an entire song out of it.

2. James Brown - "That's Sweet Music"

From: 1980's People

Sure, Brown is ripping off Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music." But this pseudo-disco track's greater crime is that it features Brown attempting to scat Louis Armstrong-style. There's a reason it was the first and last time he ever tried this. The vapid background vocals and generically-produced instrumental track are a far cry from "Sex Machine." Somehow, he manages to name drop Sinatra, Nat King Cole and new wave rock, to nobody's advantage.

1. Aretha Franklin - "What a Fool Believes"

From: 1980's Aretha

Aretha's take on Michael McDonald and Kenny Loggins' aesthetic starts off promisingly enough, with multiple keyboards vibrating below her legato introduction. Unfortunately, after the first twenty seconds the track becomes a note-for-note cover of the Doobie Brothers' original, only with less personality and facial hair. The Queen of Soul covering the kings of yacht rock just feels wrong. Five years later Franklin would release another album entitled Aretha, which features a grinding duet with none other than Larry Graham.

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